While the Kings continue to sort out their early season results and roster, the Reign settled in this weekend for their first of many back-to-back weekend games at Citizens Business Bank Arena in Ontario.
The Reign opened up their schedule last weekend in San Diego with a 2-0, 36-save shutout from Jack Campbell. This weekend saw games against other division rivals, the Texas Stars and the San Jose Barracuda.
If you were an attendee to either game, you certainly got your fair share of end to end action, heavy physical play, and high drama. The Reign downed Texas 6-5 in overtime after squandering a 4-1 first period lead over the baby Stars. Texas hammered 35 shots at their former netminder in Jack Campbell, and the Reign got two goals from captain Vincent LoVerde en route to the overtime win. Zac Leslie also notched his first career AHL goal, and Johnny Brodzinski got off the mark quick with his first goal, the OT winner, in just two games. Last season the sniper endured an 18-game goalless streak to open his first professional year. Newcomer T.J. Hensick also made quite an impression on Saturday, registering a goal and playing what Coach Mike Stothers described as his "Best game so far".
Stothers further lauded the play of the 30-year old Hensick, " First of all he’s a very good hockey player. He’s always been able to create offense and get some points but he’s learning rapidly the pace and the work ethic that’s required to play in this organization and so even practices have been an adjustment for him. The systems are new, responsibilities of the center iceman, how hard those guys have to work both in our zone and the offensive zone. So it’s been new to him. It’s great that you brought that up because we singled him out as a coaching staff after the game."
While coach Stothers was overall pleased with the result, the process was a little unnerving for him having seen his team give up a three goal lead AND give the Stars five powerplay opportunities (two of which they converted on).
"That’s not how we play. It was good that we got one more than they did but that’s not going to win either team a championship. We need to correct some things and we need to be harder to play against and better defensively. What’d we have to score 6 to finally win? Crazy."
When asked what he thought caused such a heavy momentum shift, he made it clear. "Yeah, the stupid penalties we took. What’d we take? Slashing in front of our bench. They score. Take another one, holding, I don’t know what it was. Whatever it is. Are you kidding me? So there you go, let’s start right there with lesson learned...They live for power plays. You give them power plays, I don’t care how big a lead you have, it’s not enough. Young guys, American Hockey League, it’s the way it works."
While Ontario squeaked out the victory on Friday, Saturday was a reminder that you won't always get away with it. In another high pace overtime thriller, the Reign lost 5-4 to the San Jose Barracuda. Despite the loss, there was a story that was hard to ignore and that almost everyone in the hockey world was focused on.
With the injury to Zatkoff that morning, Jack Campbell was recalled to the Kings leaving 22-year old Jonah Imoo to slot in for his first professional game. In fact, Jonah stated after the game that after a difficult previous year where he was traded and had a thumb injury, he had not played since "Around Christmas" of last season. To further add to the nerves and interest in the situation, Jonah's father and current LA Kings goalie coach Dusty Imoo was signed to a PTO as an emergency backup for the evening. It was, in fact, the first time a father-son tandem had played in the same game as goalies in the AHL/NHL. With Jack Flinn suiting up in Manchester, New Hampshire, there was no other choice for the Kings or Reign. It made for one interesting storyline throughout the evening.
As far as the on-ice product goes, five goals on 31 shots was not truly fair to Jonah Imoo. He played a very solid game, keeping rebound either to a minimum or steered into the right places. His movement was solid, he seemed to battle for position, and he also made some massive and difficult saves to keep the score even lower than what it was. The Barracuda, who were at times a rather slow and laborious team moving up ice last season, have rebuilt in a sense with numerous new inclusions to the roster of the pacey variety. Kevin LaBanc, Marcus Sorensen, Tim Heed, Danny O'Regan, Colin Blackwell, and Rourke Chartier are just a few of the new names that have brought an inflection of pace and offensive potency to the Barracuda roster. They were flying from puck drop, and looked the more potent and aggressive team through most of the evening. They doubled up the Reign in shots, 31 to 15 and had a firm lead in even strength scoring chances (it was a double digit lead).
Penalties were again a big issue for the Reign, as the gave up two goals on five attempts. Of the few bright spots from game two on the weekend, the Reign powerplay did go two for four. Another, and perhaps the brightest bright spot, was newly signed Danish forward Patrick Bjorkstrand, whose AHL pro debut came with a two-goal, three-point performance. The 24-year old Bjorkstrand has played the last three years in the KHL, last season with Medvescak Zagreb where he scored 13 goals and 22 points in 57 games.
The irony is that with Kempe out due to illness and Auger out with a minor injury, Bjorkstrand may not have slotted in at all on Saturday night. Stother's post game was short and sweet Saturday, but he still did talk about Bjorkstrand seizing the opportunity, "Well that's what you hope (For). Ya know he comes in looking for his first game action of the regular season and came in and scored two goals and had an assist and made some things happen offensively." Bjorkstrand was certainly one of the more impressive offensive players despite it being on a night where offense for the Reign was hard to come by. One thing with the center that was noteworthy was his hard-working 200-foot game. Bjorkstrand seemed to be very aware of puck transitions, his role as a low-zone center on breakouts, and making sure he controlled the center of the ice. He also has a very nice and precise wrist shot when given the time and space to use it.
Look for a little bit more on Patrick Bjorkstrand later this week, as his story is an interesting one worth talking about. He is currently one of just 13 players from a developing Danish contingency on the world stage and in the Pro level of North American hockey.
For the Imoo tandem, a story that was hard to ignore, it was a fun night, a unique night, and one that was covered superbly by Lindsay Czarnecki of LA Kings Insider. Check it out!
Overall Saturday was a more frustrating end to some of the same issues that plagued the Reign on Friday. While going 1-0-1 on the weekend is pretty good, it was far from tight checking defensive hockey. New additions to the blueline seem to be leading to a bit of a feeling out process, and the fact that San Jose and Texas play very very high paced games probably did not help. Penalty killing will likely be a focus in the coming weeks for the team as they went 6-for-10 overall. However, the Reign still look like a strong team front to back. They have perhaps one of the more stacked defensive groups in the AHL, and the additions of forwards T.J. Hensick, Michael Latta, a full-season of Brett Sutter, Michael Amadio and perhaps Patrick Bjorkstrand should help generate the offense alongside the old standbys of Mersch, Kempe, Auger, and Backman. Overall, a fun weekend of hockey that if fans attended they certainly got their money's worth.
Here are a few other notes from notable Kings prospects on the weekend:
Leslie had an outstanding Friday night game, and looked like a man determined on playing more up to his ceiling this season. 2015-16 was a difficult year for Leslie, who endured injury and inconsistency en route to just a 30-game stint in his first pro season. Leslie was highly active, mobile, and positive on Friday, before logging a quieter Saturday night, like most of the Reign players. Overall though it was a great scene from Leslie, who notched his first pro goal, carried the puck with confidence, and even dropped the gloves at one point (Although he only was assessed a rough). While he may have taken a step back this year, his first action of 2016-17 has looked positive for a comeback. He was paired up with Zach Trotman for most of the weekend and also logged some powerplay time, somewhere he can make considerable damage with his devastating point shot.
Trotman had some mixed reviews on the weekend. When he was good he was active defensively, challenging players, and providing good gap control and physical play. However, at times Trotman still looks a step behind the timing and pace of the Kings system. It also does not help that Texas and San Jose are probably going to be two of the higher pressure team the Reign face this season. Decisions needed to come quick and Trotman did struggle at times.
As you would expect from a player with limited AHL experience, Lintuniemi was fairly quiet on the weekend, but did display some moments of strong puck moving capability. Defensively there were some missteps, but he played alongside Kevin Gravel on the weekend which helped make up for any slip-ups he had. Keep a sharp eye on where he goes this season.
Auger was a bull moose on Friday with his strong puck possession play, but was a huge loss on Saturday night. The big man took a nasty board from the Stars' Julius Honka which seemed to shake him up a little bit. The severity of his injury is not known at this time.
After a big playoff introduction last year, Amadio played two games on the weekend where he really looked to be in the rookie adjustment period. Stothers seemed to be careful with his usage, and while Amadio had no real offensive contributions he had some solid moments of defensive zone gap control and puck movement. This is probably going to be a year of hit and miss play from Amadio as he learns his way through a full AHL season.
Kempe was extremely active on Friday night using his insane speed and good one on one skill to create space for himself. Despite that, however, he remained off the score sheet. This prompted probably the quote of the weekend from Mike Stothers after Friday's performance
"You get caught up in the rush, now we need to finish the rush. You can’t have everybody inching up out of their chair and then ‘Ughhh.’ Let’s take it a step further and jump out of our chair and go, ‘oh my god, what a play.’ And we’re stomping our feet and we’re taking the puck out to center because we scored. That’s what it’s all about. Bring everybody to the brink and then say, ‘aww,’ sit back down on your hands. Finish it."
In theory, Kempe's move to center may be helping him play with a bit more assertiveness and confidence. He played wing almost all of last season aside from the playoffs, where he looked far better than in the regular season. Nevertheless, the talented Swede has to cash in.
A relatively quiet weekend from the bullish forward. While Friday he logged a goal and four shots, Saturday he was as quiet as a whisper, with no shots and an even rating.
He was a nasty physical presence in both games, making forwards second guess going anywhere near the front of the net or attempt entry at the blue line. He was the distributor of several huge hits and good defensive plays on the weekend. Also developing is a confidence on the puck. MacDermid made several enterprising and opportunistic offensive plays, and wise and settled skill moves this weekend that we would not have seen from the Kurtis MacDermid of last year. His skating has seemed to improve immensely, although learning the timing of his offensive pushes will be paramount. Late in the San Jose game he got a bit too deep in the zone, leading to a Barracuda rush and an eventual hooking penalty on his recovery backcheck. Nevertheless, he played close to 20 minutes on Saturday night and looked like one of the stronger Reign defensemen on the weekend with hard nosed hockey and a developing offensive confidence perhaps. Also worth noting, word is that MacDermid is something of a "Freak athlete" when it comes to his offseason training regimen and workout routines.
I joined Jesse Cohen of the All the Kings Men podcast with Reign Insider Lindsay Czarnecki and Kings PA man Dave Joseph where we talked about Mersch, MacDermid, and Kempe a little bit. Check it out
The Reign are going to be out of town for a while but look for some more player focused pieces in the coming weeks while we await their home return November 9th.
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